17 low-prep ESL activity ideas for teaching past tenses
By Allan Sweeney
By Allan Sweeney
Say goodbye to boring grammar drills and hello to interactive, hands-on activities. We've compiled a list of 17 fun and engaging ESL activities that will have your students mastering past tenses in no time.
As always, we've tweaked these ideas so they can be used in classrooms with limited resources and made the instructions as simple as possible to help new teachers out.
But even if you're an experienced teacher, there might be a few ideas in here that catch your eye. I really hope you find them useful.
The teacher reads a short story aloud and then chooses different students to recount part it back to the class.
You will need to find or prepare a short story before you start this activity. It should be suitable for the students' level and age. There are endless resources for this online, so it shouldn't take long. The story zone section on the British Council website is a great place to start.
Start the activity by reading the story aloud to the class. Read the story one or more times, depending on their age and level. Encourage students to listen carefully and take notes if necessary.
For the next part of the activity, choose a student to recount part of the story back to the class. The student should try to remember as much detail as possible, using past tense verbs to describe events and actions.
As the student recounts the story, ask comprehension questions to the other students. For example, you might ask, "Why did he look in the box?" or "What colour was the girl's hat?" Doing this will help your students stay engaged and focused on the activity.
Once the first student has finished recounting their part of the story, choose another to continue where they left off. Again, ask comprehension questions as the story is being retold.
Continue this process until your students have retold the entire story.
Optional Add-on: For some added writing practice or a homework assignment, ask the class to write the entire story from memory. If you do this in the classroom, have the students work in groups.
- Choose a story that is engaging and interesting for your students, but also appropriate for their language level and age.
- Encourage students to take notes as you read the story aloud to help them remember details.
- Be patient and supportive as students retell the story. Remember that the goal is to improve their comprehension and use of past tense verbs, not to be perfect storytellers.
2. Picture this
The students are presented with images and encouraged to make past tense statements about the pictures.
Before the lesson, gather 5-10 images from the internet relevant to your students' language level and age. Choose pictures that have a lot of detail and can prompt a variety of past tense statements.
At the beginning of the activity, show the first image to the class and ask students to describe what they see in the picture.
Next, encourage students to make past tense statements about the picture using the tenses you have been targeting in your lessons. You can record some of the students' past tense statements on the whiteboard if you want.
For example, if the first picture is a man standing next to the Eiffel Tower, some past tense statements that someone could use might include:
- Mark visited the Eiffel Tower last year.
- He took a picture of the Eiffel Tower.
- He walked up the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
- The weather was sunny when he visited Paris.
After students have had a chance to make statements about the first picture, show the next image and repeat the process. Continue this until all of the photographs have been shown and discussed.
After discussing all of the pictures, review the past tense statements made and provide feedback on areas where students could improve their use of the target grammar.
3. Routine checkup
Students learn about the past tense by modifying present simple sentences about their daily routines into past tense statements.
Begin the activity by explaining to students that they will learn about the past tense by modifying present simple statements about their daily routines into past tense statements.
Start by eliciting present simple statements from the students about their daily routines. For example, "I wake up at 7:00 am."
After you elicit each present simple statement, ask the class for a past tense equivalent. For example, "Yesterday, I woke up at 7:00 am."
Encourage students to use time expressions such as "last night," "yesterday," or "this morning" to help indicate that the statements are in the past.
Repeat this process for 5-10 daily routine statements, stepping through each part of the day (morning, afternoon, evening, etc.) and eliciting both present simple and past tense sentences.
After the class has practised modifying the statements, ask individual students to come up with their own present simple statements and challenge the group to come up with past tense equivalents.
- Use visual aids, such as daily routine flashcards, to help students visualise the sequence of events in their day.
4. Positive and negative
For this activity, students complete a table with positive statements in the past tense and their negative equivalents.
Begin the activity by drawing a table on the board with a plus sign in the left column heading and a minus symbol in the right heading.
Explain to students that they will complete the table by adding five positive statements in whichever past tense is the target for the lesson, along with their negative equivalents. Encourage students to be creative and make their statements as funny as possible. Add some examples if you have time.
Give students time to work individually or in pairs to create their statements.
Once students have completed the table, have them share their statements with the class.
Add the funniest or most interesting statements on the board as examples.
5. Past simple interview
The students prepare questions before interviewing a partner on a past activity.
Begin the activity by explaining to students that they will be interviewing a classmate about a past event and practising asking and answering questions in the past tense.
Select a topic before you begin. Here are some examples:
- Embarrassing moment
- First job/day of high school.
Provide the class with a list of prompts or topics that they can use to form questions for their partner. For example, if you have chosen 'cinema', you could add the following:
When / be / last time / go / cinema?
- funny? (Using be)
- scary? (Using be)
Elicit the solution to the first question and write it on the board.
Assign partners and give them time to prepare questions using the provided prompts. When the group is ready, elicit the correct answers for each one before starting the next part of the activity.
In pairs, students will now interview each other about the last time they visited the cinema. Encourage them to ask follow-up questions and to ask for more details about their partner's past event.
After the interviews, ask each student to share what they learned about their partner.
6. It's all in the past
For this writing activity, students use the target language to make sentences from a list of prompts on the board.
Begin the activity by writing 5-8 prompts on the board that will target a particular grammar point.
For example, if you were teaching past simple sentences using the verb 'to be', you could use the following:
- I / Italy last summer
- John and Mark / NOT / zoo
- I / NOT / school last week
- John and Anne / Concert
- We / NOT / at her wedding
Explain to the students that they must use the target grammar for the lesson to make sentences from the prompts.
Give students time to work individually to create sentences from each prompt.
After students have completed their sentences, encourage them to compare their answers with a partner.
Finally, ask volunteers to share their sentences with the class, review the target language used in the sentences and provide feedback to students on their use of the grammar.
7. My Wiki
For this fun writing activity, the students create their own Wikipedia page.
Begin the activity by asking students if they have ever read a famous person's Wikipedia page. Elicit the type of information it contains and write this on the board. For example:
- Personal information (name, age, place of birth)
- Education (school, college, degrees earned)
- Career or job experience
- Achievements or awards
- Family information
- Anecdotes or stories
Explain to students that they will be creating their own Wikipedia page. Encourage them to be as creative as possible and to include interesting and unique information about themselves.
Give students 10-15 minutes to work on their Wikipedia pages individually. After they have completed their Wikipedia pages, ask volunteers to share them with the class.
Encourage the students to ask questions and provide feedback on each other's pages.
Remember to review any target grammar and vocabulary used and provide feedback to students on their use of it.
- Provide examples of famous people's Wikipedia pages to help students understand the structure and content of a typical page.
- Encourage students to use a variety of verb tenses and descriptive language on their Wikipedia pages.
8. What were you doing?
Students work in pairs to interview each other about what they were doing at a specific time in the past using the past continuous tense.
Begin the activity by explaining the past continuous tense and providing examples of how we can use it to form questions about the past. Discuss some example structures with the group before they begin:
- What were you doing at 9am this morning?
- What were you watching on TV last night?
- What were you wearing when you went to the party on Saturday?
- What were you learning in English last week?
Demonstrate the activity with another student by asking them what they were doing at a specific time in the past, using the past continuous tense to frame the question. For example, "What were you doing at 7pm last night?"
Give the students a few minutes to prepare some questions before splitting them into pairs to interview each other.
Encourage them to ask follow-up questions, such as "What were you playing on your PS4?" or "Who were you with?"
Once the interviews are complete, have each pair share their findings with the class.
9. Have you ever...?
A speaking activity where the students use the present perfect to interview each other about past experiences.
Begin the activity by explaining to students that they will use the present perfect and past simple to interview each other.
Elicit example topics and add them to the board. These can be related to a specific theme, such as travel or hobbies, or they can be more general. For example:
- Travel experiences
- Hobbies and interests
- Childhood memories
- Significant life events
- Favourite books or movies
- Achievements or accomplishments
- Difficult challenges they have faced
- Memorable experiences with friends or family
Try to elicit some example questions for each topic as you step through them.
Choose a student to do a quick demo with you before the rest of the class begins. Ask them questions about a past experience using the present perfect, and encourage them to provide detailed responses:
Teacher: Have you ever been to a music concert?
Student: Yes, I have.
Teacher: Who did you see?
Student: I saw AC/DC.
Teacher: Where was the concert?
Once the demo is complete, assign partners and give students time to prepare questions using the provided topics.
Encourage students to ask follow-up questions and to ask for more details about their partner's experience.
When the students finish the interviews, ask them to share some interesting or funny responses from their partner.
10. Mistakes were made
For this activity, students must identify and correct past tense grammatical errors.
Begin the activity by writing 5-7 past tense sentences on the board, each with at least one grammatical error. You can choose to target a single tense or a mix. Some examples:
- He go to the store yesterday.
- They writed a letter to their parents.
- She had took the bus to work this morning.
- We had ate pizza for lunch.
- I seen that movie last week.
- He didn't went to the party last night.
- She was walking to the store when it starts raining.
Have the students work individually to complete the exercise. When they have finished, they should compare their answers with a classmate.
Finally, ask students to share their corrections with the class and review each sentence's correct solution. Discuss any common errors or areas of difficulty that students encountered during the exercise.
11. Same old story
In this activity, students share a personal story using the past tenses they have recently covered.
Begin the activity by explaining to the group that they will share a story from their past using the past tenses targeted in recent lessons.
Tell the students to think about a specific event or experience from their past that they can share with the class. Encourage them to ask questions and add any helpful language or prompts to the board.
Give students time to prepare their stories, encouraging them to focus on correctly using past tense verbs and adding as many details as possible.
Once students have had time to prepare, ask each to share their stories with the class.
After students finish sharing their story, ask the rest of the class comprehension questions to confirm that they understood the details and events described in the story.
Provide feedback to each student, pointing out areas where they did well and areas where they can improve their use of the target grammar.
Depending on the age or level of the students, encourage them to ask each other questions and give feedback on each other's stories.
- Provide sentence starters or prompts to help students prepare their stories, such as "When I lived in..., I..." or "Last summer, I..."
For this fun ESL activity idea, students will create a play that another group has to perform.
Begin the activity by splitting the class into two or four groups, depending on class size. Have each group create a play or movie scene for the other group to act out. Each play should have a character for every member of the other group.
Now give the students time to work on their plays, and encourage them to make them as funny and detailed as possible.
After the plays are complete, have each group choose a narrator to explain their story while the other group performs.
Make sure that each person knows their character name before the play starts, and encourage them to stay in character throughout the performance.
Encourage the actors to use the appropriate dialogue when responding to the narrator.
- Rearrange the room to help students create their scenes or stories.
- Encourage students to use a variety of past tenses in their dialogue, depending on the context of the scene or story.
Example story ideas:
- A group of friends go camping and encounter a mysterious creature in the woods.
- A family goes on a vacation and has a series of misadventures along the way.
- A detective solves a crime and catches the thief.
- A group of superheroes save the world from an evil villain.
- A group of students go on a field trip and have a wild and crazy day.
13. Yesterday's news
A group writing activity where the students have to plan an article detailing a dramatic event.
This activity is from our free lesson plan on past simple and continuous.
Start by telling your students they will work in groups to write a newspaper report on a past event.
Next, get some ideas from the class, and use famous disaster movies for inspiration. Here are a few simple examples:
- Volcanic eruption
- Bank robbery
- Escaped zoo animals
- Alien invasion
Try to elicit the kind of information that they'll need to write the article. Write questions on the board that you want the report to answer. The following should be sufficient:
- What was happening before the event?
- What were people doing?
- What happened?
- How did it begin?
- What was happening during the event? - People's reaction
- How did it end?
- What was happening after?
Confirm that students understand the above questions, and elicit which tense should be used to answer them.
When all groups are clear on the writing task, they can start to plan and write their articles. Remind them that their reports should attempt to answer all of the questions from the board.
Once students have had time to prepare, ask a student from each group to share their report with the class.
Provide feedback to each group, pointing out areas where they did well and areas where they can improve their use of the target grammar.
14. Story completion
Students complete a story using past tense grammar for this group writing activity.
Begin by providing each group with the beginning of a story. Some examples:
- Yesterday, I went to the grocery store to buy some milk. As I was walking down the aisle, I noticed something strange happening at the checkout. Suddenly, I heard a loud noise coming from the front of the store…
- Last summer, I went on a road trip with my friends. We had planned the trip for months, but we never could have predicted what would happen when we got to our first stop…
- When I was a child, my family had a pet dog named Max. Max was a mischievous and adventurous dog, and he always seemed to be getting into trouble. One day, Max disappeared, and we were afraid we would never see him again...
Note: Adjust these based on the interests and language level of the students.
Have the students work together to complete the story using past tense grammar structures they should be familiar with. Encourage them to make their stories as funny and detailed as possible.
Give students time to work on their stories, monitor the groups and answer any questions.
When the stories are complete, ask for volunteers from each group to read them aloud.
Review the past tense grammar used in the stories and provide feedback to students on their use of any target language.
15. Find someone who…
The students walk around the class, ask each other questions, and check off a list of past simple activities.
This classic ESL activity idea works well as an intermediate-level group's first lesson activity, but it can also be used to revise past tenses at any point in a course.
Begin the activity by writing 5-7 past simple activities on the board. For example:
- Saw a foreign movie in the theatre
- Rode a roller coaster
- Went to a concert this/last year(Depending on the month of year)
- Ate something exotic
- Competed at a sporting event
- Met a celebrity
- Went on a road trip
Now have the students walk around the class and ask each other questions to find someone who has done each activity on the board. Encourage them to ask open-ended questions that elicit more information, such as "Where did you eat sushi?" or "Where did you go when you visited ___?"
Now instruct the students to find someone who has done each activity. When they do, they should tick it off their list.
Once all the activities have been ticked off, bring the class together and review what the students learned about their classmates.
- Provide examples of past tense sentence structures and question forms to help students with their conversations if needed.
- Remember to provide feedback on the language used in the activity and review any common errors or areas of difficulty at the end.
Students must research and write a short biography about a famous person using the past tenses they have studied.
This activity depends on the students having access to the internet and can be done as an individual or pair-work activity. If they don't have access to the internet in the classroom, this also works as an excellent homework assignment.
Begin the activity by explaining to the students that they will be researching and writing a short biography about a famous person using the past tenses they have studied.
You can provide a list of famous people for students to choose from or allow them to choose their own.
Have the students use their smartphones or computers to research their chosen person's life and accomplishments. Encourage them to take notes in the past tense as they search the web.
Once the research is complete, have students write a short biography in the past tense, using grammar and sentence structures that they have recently studied.
Finally, the students will share their biographies with the class. Review the past tense grammar used and provide feedback to students on their language use.
Examples of famous people:
- Martin Luther King Jr.
- Frida Kahlo
- Albert Einstein
- Marie Curie
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Elvis Presley
- J.K. Rowling
17. Fake news!
For this activity, students will create a news broadcast about a real or imaginary event and present it to the class for feedback.
Begin the activity by discussing recent news events specific to your students' country, and ask the group to explain what happened.
Add any useful language that comes up during the discussion to the board, such as past tense verbs, vocabulary, and sentence structures.
Have the students work in groups to create a news broadcast about a real or imaginary event. Encourage them to lean on language structures and vocabulary from the board.
To make it more fun, encourage students to create funny imaginary news stories. The more ridiculous, the better!
Once the news broadcasts are ready, have each group nominate a presenter to report the news to the class.
Finally, remember to review any common errors or areas of difficulty with past tense grammar with the group.
Thanks for reading and I hope you found some ideas to use in your ESL classroom. Don't forget to check out our complete library of ESL lesson plans for more of the same. We're always adding new content, so be sure to come back and visit us again soon. Also, let us know your thoughts in the comments:
What are your favourite ideas for teaching past tenses?
What are your biggest challenges when working with these tenses?
Allan is the Co-Founder & Lead Developer on the TEFL Handbook project. He spends his time building software and creating resources that support English teaching. You can learn more about his goals for the project here.